NV Energy Gas Serviceman Paul Winters went into the backyard. That’s where the customer had smelled gas.
Winters noticed some propane tanks there, then glanced over the back fence at the neighbor’s yard. He could see the neighbor’s meter spinning. But according to the customer who had made the call, that house was vacant. Winters knew something was very, very wrong.
“I drove around the block, hopped over a fence and went into the backyard and then my CGI went off,” said Winters, a 13-year IBEW member.
That’s CGI, as in Combustible Gas Indicator. A concentration of natural gas between 4 and 14% is combustible. Gas servicemen are supposed to evacuate a structure if the concentration is over 1%. The reading on Winters’ CGI, standing in the open air next to the vacant house, was 5%.
“I thought, ‘Oh sh–, I’m in trouble here.’ I had a decision to make: Should I shut it off? Should I get the hell out of here?”
Winters knew it would be a disaster if the gas found a spark, a flame, any source of ignition.
“It would have exploded that entire house … and wiped out neighbors’ houses as well. You’re talking about a bomb the size of a house. That whole house was filled with explosive mixture.”
It’s the sort of moment when your training is supposed to kick in.
“I went to my truck and got a crescent wrench,” said Winters, thinking to himself: “If I don’t shut it off, who will?”
“Major, major gas leak”
After turning off the gas he went back to his truck and alerted an NV Energy dispatcher to call the Fire Department. He also called fellow Gas Serviceman Marty Marshall, and Leak Surveyor Pete Billings.
When Marshall arrived he put his CGI through a small gap in the garage door.
“I set my CGI and immediately got 4% for gas,” Marshall said. “In our business, we mainly get little, little leaks that are way less than 1%. But over 4%, that’s a major, major gas leak.”
Marshall began evacuating neighboring houses. Because the house with the leak was vacant, Winters called the realtor, who eventually showed up with a key.
“Paul and I approached the front door. We had talked about it,” said Marshall. “The house had been winterized by the realtor so all the electricity was off and the pilots were turned off. We debated on opening the door to vent the structure, give the gas a way to get out of there.”
But first they looked through a window to see if there was any sign of a “sabotage situation.” It was a suspicious leak and they were taking every precaution possible. They decided to open the door. Very carefully.
When Billings, the Leak Surveyor, arrived on the scene he deployed his RMLD, a sensitive instrument that can read natural gas from a distance by using laser light.
“He was shooting through the open front door and we were getting well over 9% gas,” said Marshall. “If you want the purest explosion you can get, it’s about 10% gas. This structure was very, very volatile. It was ready to go.”
The Fire Department arrived and wanted to vent the house some more, but Marshall advised them they shouldn’t enter a structure with a natural gas concentration over 3%.
With the source of gas shut off, the readings eventually dropped to about 3-4%. Marshall went around to the back to open the garage door and a side door.
“Once it got down to about 2% all of us started opening up the windows to let it vent the rest of the way. We got the house vented out to less than 1% and then continued our investigation,” said Marshall.
Wide open 3/4-inch line
What they found next was disturbing. Marshall and Winters went into the crawl space under the house. They saw a 3/4-inch house line that was tremendously bowed and had become disconnected.
“It had actually severed where the thread entered the 3/4-inch T. It was a wide open 3/4-inch line,” said Marshall. It didn’t look like a clean cut—it looked like it had been pulled and snapped. Marshall hasn’t been involved in the subsequent investigation, but he thinks the circumstances of the broken pipe are very suspicious.
Later the company learned, using smart meter technology, that the line had been severed a full day earlier—the gas had already been blowing for over 24 hours when Winters first arrived on the scene.
Fortunately the neighbor had the good sense to report the smell of gas, and the IBEW members who took the call had the training to respond effectively.
“It was a little overwhelming,” Winters acknowledged. “It could’ve gone the other way at any time.”
But Marshall said the men had no room for panic.
“We just did what we were trained to do. It’s just second nature. We have a good apprenticeship and we have safety meetings throughout the year and they prepare you for things like this. We just wrapped our heads around it,” he said, “and talked about every move before we did it.”
Still, it’s not a day they will forget anytime soon. Winters called his dad about it, then drove home to his wife of 13 years and their two children.
“I told them it was one of those days where daddy needs a hug.”